Tootsie

Maybe I’m just on a Dust Hoffman train now, but for my final blog, I decided to finally fully watch a movie that has graced not only several Top 100 lists of the 80s, but numerous lists concerning the top movies of all time as well: Tootsie. The film stars Dustan Hoffman as Michael Dorsey, an actor struggling to make a living due to his tendency to cause conflict and general irritation on set. His difficulties lead him to pursue a new gig as a day-time medical soap opera star as a woman—the plucky and outspoken Dorothy Thomas.

Although originally Michael only plans to appear on the show until he earns enough money to produce and star in a play his roommate has written, he ends up becoming more and more invested his life as Dorothy to the exclusion of his girlfriend who he seems somewhat uninterested in. Through his part on the soap opera he meets Julie, a co-star on the show whom he falls in love with and attempts to court as both his male and female selves. Dorothy/Michael must also contend with the interests of male co-stars and, embarrassingly, Julie’s widowed father, Les. Hilarity and Academy Award nominations ensue.

The film was marketed as a comedy in its day and although it is without question amusing, it seemed in my eyes that it included more serious commentary on the position of women in the 1980s than could be expected of a run-of-the-mill comedy.

Although Hoffman’s character originally begins as a somewhat stereotypical, misogynistic male figure, as the film progresses and he immerses himself deeper into the character of Dorothy. By standing up for himself to the womanizing actors on the soap-opera, Michael begins to feel the effects of disrespectful attitudes towards women. He realizes that he likely doled out similar disrespect, and attempts to recant in a way by presenting Dorothy as a feminist character, slapping “doctors” on air for flirtatious antics and advising Julie—albeit in a somewhat self-interested fashion—to escape her relationship with the show’s sexist director.

This shed quite a bit of light on the state of sexism and discrimination against women in employment during the 80s, a trend which, sadly enough, continues today. Social issues of unequal compensation, sexual harassment, and single parenthood are dealt with in the film, primarily through either Michael’s personal experiences as Dorothy—such as the scene in which he must count on the entrance of a man to stop a co-star from forcing himself on “Dorothy”—or Julie’s stories of what working in the business is like. Even though the film was directed by a man, I believe it accurately captured and brought attention to the plight of the modern woman in a professional context.

You’re the Rain Man?

Rain Man, always a favorite of my dad’s, had somehow never made it into the line-up of eighties film, music, and culture he has imparted on me. Last night, I decided—with the help of Netflix Instant—to remedy that situation.

This film turned out to be much more profound than I expected it to be. Its commentary on the perceptions of mental illness in the eighties in particular surprised me. Although many psychologists and psychiatrists have complained that Dustan Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond does not adhere to the traditional diagnosis of autism, it is the reactions of people in the movie towards both Raymond and other mentally challenged characters which truly reveal the shift in attitude toward mental illness that has occurred in the past few decades. In the film, reactions to Raymond outside of the institution he has been placed in range from outright disdain and mockery—originally stemming from Charlie, Raymond’s brother, played by Tom Cruise—or painfully patronizing. Although complete understanding—both in the scientific and social acceptance sense—of mental illnesses with likely never happen, Rain Man certainly emphasizes that the level of acceptance of the mentally challenged has risen.

The movie also raised several ethical quandaries, particularly in the sequence in which Charlie takes Raymond to a casino in Las Vegas and uses his autistic savant abilities to count cards. In truth, the entire premise of the film is based on an extremely unethical type of bargaining—Charlie wants half of his late father’s fortune, and kidnaps Ray in a sense in order to strike out a deal with the psychologist who has been placed in charge of Raymond’s affairs. This obviously questionable behavior is soon replaced however by Charlie’s genuine desire to care for his brother, which gives rise to yet another ethical debate—would Ray be better off with the personal connection of his brother and more risk of physical or emotional harm from environmental factors or in an institution devoid of danger and family relationships?

Even more striking than the social commentary buried in Rain Man was Hoffman’s extraordinary portrayal of a high-functioning autistic man.  As previously mentioned, several experts took issue with Hoffman’s technically inaccurate portrayal of autism. However, in my opinion, Hoffman more than Cruise became the focal point of the film. His ability to authentically and consistently convey a serious mental handicap throughout the movie impressed me beyond belief. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it must have been to believably convey a complex mental illness like autism while still trying to convey the emotion necessary to make the back-story convincing. Hoffman was also, amazingly, able to bring true humor to the screen through his representation of Raymond. This endearing and surprising humor is especially evident in the scene where Raymond, complaining about having to wear Charlie’s underwear instead of his preferred Hanes boxer shorts from K-Mart, annoys his brother into throwing said underwear out of the car and cries, “Uh-oh, you left your shorts on the highway.”

 

The Last Unicorn

 

Yes, I did decide to write a blog on a movie called The Last Unicorn. And in my opinion, if you haven’t seen this lost gem of a children’s movie, you probably should. It has fallen prey to the classic disease that seems to kill many an animated, kid-friendly movie:  it wasn’t made by Disney.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching, however. In fact, I found this movie to be surprisingly enjoyable due to its striking animation and engaging story. The film is based on a novel by Peter Beagle, and centers around a unicorn, supposedly the last of her kind, and her quest to find others like her. She is transformed into a human by a fumbling magician and falls for a young prince. Seems like your average fairy-tale movie, right? WRONG.

The animation of the movie enhances its fairy-tale plot-line. The colors vary depending on the mood of the scene—they are vibrant and rich during scenes in the forest and dark and ominous during scenes involving the host of evil that plagues the unicorn protagonist.

The level of dark imagery and mentioning of black magic was surprising for a children’s movie, especially considering its marginal popularity—it supposedly grossed around six million in theatres.  Similar to the problem which plagued the Disney miss The Black Cauldron—which terrified children and made parents uncomfortable—the dark imagery in the Last Unicorn tended to go over the heads of young children. The scene which takes place in the dilapidated gypsy fair perfectly depicts this age-inappropriate grimness. The images of abused animals in small cages, being manipulated and used to trick passersby and make money seems a bit mature for your average Disney baby.

Other somewhat mature themes prevail in the movie. Nudity during the transformation scene—I’m talking bare butt here too, not just conveniently placed hair strands—as well as the non-traditional ending of the film likely contributed to its overall lack of renown.  Instead of the average, “let’s run off together into the sunset in a cloud of happiness,” shenanigans, Amalthea (the unicorn) and Prince Lir must go their separate ways.

The film also contains a surprising message of feminism. Not only does Amalthea single-handedly battle the fearsome and evil Red Bull and free thousands of captive unicorns, but she also leaves the man she loves in order to establish a home for the other unicorns.

Teen Wolf

Teen Wolf seemed to place itself entirely on the humorous side of the werewolf genre, both with its special effects—or lack thereof—and target audience of insecure teenagers.

First of all, this entire movie seemed like a fairly obvious metaphor for puberty. The main character, Scott, is a young, somewhat shrimpy teenage boy with no athletic or romantic skills, but who still holds high aspirations just as any other desperate want to be in a teen flick does. His aspirations are entirely predictable, as is the line-up of characters presented in the film. He wants to win the affections of the typical, clearly vapid popular girl (because, hey, she’s blond, and she has that sweet 80s coif going on) be a part of the cool crowd, and become suddenly and inexplicably awesome at basketball.  Of course, this being a metaphor for puberty, our poor protagonist must go through some—ahem—awkward changes in order to win the girl and the game. Scott’s werewolf transformation is done in a way which reflects the reaction any uninformed teen would have upon witnessing sudden changes in their body. This metaphor is further emphasized by the usage of the concerned father figure, claiming he understands what his son is going through—which, in this case, he does, because he’s also a werewolf.

I found that the adherence to the stereotypical teen-movie plot line cheapened what could have otherwise been made into a more serious movie. The fact that Scott was a werewolf almost seemed to become completely forgotten in the host of adolescent antics that ensued—house parties, seven minutes in heaven, demonstrations of teenage idiocy, car surfing, and muddling around with fake IDs. Instead of focusing on his identity as another species, the film focuses instead on his personal identity, and his quest to find typical teenage balance between popularity and his true self. Honestly, they probably could have filmed the whole movie without even adding any werewolf elements and it would have been nearly the same.

Aside from the plot of the movie I found I also had issues with the physical werewolf transformation. Maybe I’m biased toward the more serious werewolf films, but in my opinion, it’s extremely difficult to make a transformation look passable unless a combination of CGI and physical special effects, with a few notable exceptions. One of the best werewolf transformations is, in my opinion, Professor Lupin’s transformation in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban, which used both CGI and advanced make-up techniques. Movies which rely too much on CGI often end up looking obviously abnormal—I mean more abnormal than an enormous wolf-man—such as those used in Van Helsing. On the other hand, the more computer animation is used, the more fluid a transformation can become. However, there are some examples of excellent and believable werewolf transformations which were created before the dawn of CGI. Wolfman—not the 2010 version—used solely make-up and a whole lot of takes in order to create a sort of elapsed time werewolf transformation, which seems entirely more believable than that of Teen Wolf, which was filmed nearly fifty years later.

Stay Gold

Although the plot line of The Outsiders has become more than familiar to me over the years after numerous middle school and high school assigned readings, I must confess that I have never actually sat down and watched the entire 1983 film adaptation.

To me, the most prevalent cinematic device used throughout the film was the omnipresent call of a train whistle in the background of many major scenes.  The almost mournful cry of the train punctuates the most intense scenes in the film, such as the fountain scene, where one of the youngest Greasers, Johnny, is forced to kill a rival gang member to save his friend’s life.

The train seems to have a two-sided symbolism, depending on when it is used. In some ways, the call of the train whistle mocks the Greasers, who believe that there is no escape from the constant cycle of gang violence and eternal fear they have come to know. In fact, this cycle is perpetuated by the Greasers themselves, as demonstrated by the scene in which Dally, Ponyboy, and Johnny rough up young Greasers-to-be in a vacant lot, as if instructing them on how to successfully carry on the gang’s line. The train whistle emphasizes this hopeless feeling—it reminds the gang that there is a way out, an escape from the death and violence, but they cannot take it. This hopeless feeling is especially evident when Dally, furious at the futility of Johnny’s death, pulls an unloaded gun at a convenient store. Swarmed by police cars, Dally runs half-heartedly into the park where he is shot to death, the sound of the train playing in the background.

The train also serves to remind the Greasers of a life they could have, a future that could be possible if they only left the gang that both protects and stifles them. The other Greasers ignore or do not understand this message. Ponyboy, however, is made to comprehend that he can accomplish more in life by Johnny, who uses his last breath to tell him to, “Stay gold,” and avoid being fully immersed in the gang lifestyle.

Akira

According to the internet and every anime otaku I’ve ever met at a convention, Akira (1988) was the animated film that launched a generation of the popular Japanese genre, giving way to the iconic works of directors such as Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke), and Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell).  Akira also went so far as to influence the style of live-action movies produced in America–The Matrix found its dystopian footing and famed visuals by leaning on Akira’s success.

The plot of Akira centers around a teenage biker gang whose favorite pastime is to terrorize the streets of post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo, a city rebuilt from the ashes of World War III. The unsuspecting bikers somehow find themselves at the center of a top-secret government research project: experimenting with the psychic powers of higher beings known as espers.  One of the gang, Tetsuo, is discovered to have powers similar to the all-powerful esper known simply as Akira. Most of the film centers around Tetsuo’s struggle to maintain both his identity and his sanity as his powers–enhanced by government researchers using drugs–grow increasingly potent.

The animation itself is reason enough to invest a couple of hours in watching the movie–it was, to put it plainly, far ahead of its time. The visuals are particularly striking in the motorcycle chase scenes–in which the tail-lights stream behind the bikes in a very Tron-esque, eighties fashion–and in the hospital escape scene that has become famous among anime fans. (Come on guys, if Kanye West re-vamps the hospital scene in his “Stronger” video, you know it’s pretty popular.) As for the plot, well, let’s just say that if you aren’t accustomed to anime films–not animated, anime–you will probably be a little confused throughout this one. Although the film does concentrate on the effects of nuclear war–a popular topic during the Cold War era of the 1980s–and the consequences on a society when its government fails, it goes about it in a very disjointed, twisted, and trippy Japanese fashion that first time anime-watchers might find a tad bewildering.

All in all, Akira changed the face of animation in Japan and America–making the genre far more accessible and exciting than it had ever been before.

Why So Serious?

After viewing the 1989 Batman starring Michael Keaton last night (which was a trial by the way–Amazon Instant Video and I are seeing other people) I started to compare Jack Nicholson’s take on the Joker to Heath Ledger’s.

Perhaps I am simply biased towards Nolan’s trilogy, which is, in my humble opinion, one of the best super-hero movie franchises ever created—but the character Nicholson portrays, while certainly deranged, leaves something to be desired. Take the creation of the Joker for example. I find it difficult to believe that a run-of-the-mill gangster can become ten times as psychotic—not to mention pasty— as a result of falling into a vat of mysterious green liquid. Ledger’s character, though he never gives a precise account of where exactly his scars came from, leaves viewers completely convinced of his psychological instability. Whether this Joker’s tortured psyche stems from parental abuse or a failed marriage, Ledger’s character always leaves me wanting to put my hands in the air and say, “Okay, buddy.  I got it. Just don’t kill me.”

Another reason I find myself favoring Nolan’s Joker is the rivalry that the director develops between Batman and the classic villain. There are two almost identical scenes in both the 80s Batman and The Dark Knight. In Batman, the Joker stands with his arms wide, willing the “flying bastard,” to come closer. In this scene, Batman flies directly at his enemy, fully prepared to kill him. Similarly, the only reason the Joker wants to engage the caped crusader is to pull out a ridiculously huge gun and deal a fatal blow. In The Dark Knight, a similar scene takes on an entirely different dynamic. In this scene, the Joker stumbles down the street, randomly shooting a machine gun muttering, “Come on, come on I want you to do it. Hit me. Hit me!” This scene functions so differently due to the backstory of both characters—Bale’s Batman, with his “one rule” against taking life, cannot bring himself to hit the Joker, however much he might want to. The Joker knows this, and continually challenges Batman to break his moral code. It seems, particularly in this scene, that he wants to be the first casualty of Batman’s war against organized crime in Gotham. The surface enmity of Nicholson and Keaton simply cannot compete with the ethical, “battle for Gotham’s soul,” of The Dark Knight .